Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Over the weekend I read a few articles about the Grateful Dead. I guess they’ve finally called it quits or something. I was never a big Deadhead, and even when I give the old Haight-Ashbury gang a spin I don’t see what all the fuss was about. (I think it might have had to do with drugs…)
There’s something powerful about music that gets into your chemistry, though, so I can see why The Dead hit someone else just right. There must be something organic and molecular about music. Maybe it gets your cells all vibrating at the same frequency, but I think it’s also a matter of when you encounter particular music. There’s no reason, for instance, that I should get all choked up over the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G more than, say, Schubert’s “Death And The Maiden,” except that I first heard the Ravel at a rehearsal of the London Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in 1978. I was the only one sitting in the huge auditorium, having snagged a rehearsal pass as part of an independent project for school, and during a break between the first and second movements the pianist came out to warm up. He ran through the second movement’s haunting lines with what I’d call casual concentration, probably focusing as much on the physical requirements as on the emotional demands of the piece, and though he might not have even known I was out there, I felt as if he were playing to me. When the whole orchestra came out and put his solo into context, I got the shivers. Still do. Every time I hear it.
A few years before that I went to my first rock concert with my best friend, Fred. The Rolling Stones. Exile on Main Street tour. Nosebleed seats, acquired the night before when I heard on the radio a matinée had been added. Only hours after picking up the tickets ($9.50 apiece!) I was sitting with Fred in the balcony watching Keef and Mick and the boys howl their way through “Rocks Off.” Now, I happen to think Exile is one of the best rock albums ever made, if not the best, but sometimes I wonder if that’s because I was experiencing it at the time as my first real taste of rock. Coming of age.
A rainy summer night in 1973. KSHE-95 in St. Louis plays Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety, and I sit there on my bed listening to every note while the thunder claps and the lightning lights. It’s embedded in my brain.
London, again. 1979. I’m sun-bathing on the roof of the hostel where I was working at the time when a ramshackle parade goes down the street, with a band playing on a flatbed truck. It’s Elvis Costello and the Attractions doing “Accidents Will Happen” as part of a Rock Against Racism event. Sealed in my gray matter like a bug in amber.
And just recently I heard a song on Spotify that threw me back to the year I moved from St. Louis to San Diego, only — here’s the weird thing — it was a newish song that only resembled an oldie but goodie from 1988. A mood. A mode. But the song’s vibe was close enough to the buried one that my subconscious not only introduced the two but also threw me into a warm nostalgic tearfest. The good kind.
Nothing that’s recorded and released in the present can compete with what I absorbed growing up. Unfair, probably, but I was forming then, and I’m fully formed now. At least in terms of what I hope to get out of a piece of music. Nothing by Arcade Fire will ever get in me like the Richard Thompson songs on “Amnesia.” My first exposure to Beethoven live (the Eroica symphony) when I was sixteen can’t be surpassed. The sexual and sensual effect of a young woman playing the harp in a hotel lobby is primal (“Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring”).
All of these, and many more, are part of my identity. The new may come and go, but it can never transcend, except for the now-young.
If that’s you, enjoy your future past.